On a fall evening, in the library of Casa Italiana, an Italianate-style townhouse owned by New York University, a woman named Mirella Bedarida Shapiro spoke of her grandmother and great grandmother. Her grandmother, Gemma Vitale Servadio, had written eight letters in the spring and summer of 1944 that have survived and that Shapiro had recently collected and published in a slim book called, “I Am Counting On You, On Everyone…” The publisher is the nonprofit CPL Editions, an acronym that stands for Centro Primo Levi, in reference to the Italian chemist and writer who survived Nazi concentration camps to become a notable writer, until his death, in 1987, supposedly by suicide, though that conclusion is still debated.
I cannot stop thinking about those two Italian women in 1944, their loneliness and fear, and I have been wishing, somehow, that I could convey to them that they are remembered today. Yes, I say that in an almost occult-like way; I wish I could hold a séance to let them know they are remembered or have a Ouija board it spell out for them in Italian.
During the question-and-answer period at the library, an elderly, well-dressed woman seated at a table in the otherwise standing-room-only room, asked Shapiro, “And when was it they reached Auschwitz?”
“It was June 30, 1944,” Shapiro replied.
The woman appeared to be thinking for a moment and then said in a heavy European accent, as she adjusted a simple silver bracelet-cuff that had slid along her wrist and redraped a sheer scarf about her shoulders, “Oh, that was two months after I arrived at Auschwitz.”
That word “arrived,” said as casually as if it referenced having reached a tropical resort.
“But they were killed the day they arrived,” Shapiro added.
To which the woman nodded, looking first at Shapiro and then somewhere into the middle ground.
So, the woman in the room never met the two women who arrived on that date after a five-day cattle-car transport from Fossoli, the infamous Italian internment camp from which Italian Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Maybe as a fellow inmate at the camp, this woman had heard in the distance the whistled arrival of their train, or not, or, perhaps, spotted the two women as just another pair of figures on a marched walk from the depot to the “showers”, but not imagining that she would be referencing them decades hence in a comfortable room in New York, a place devoted to the written word and where people gather to speak Italian and learn more of their history. I don’t think many of us think that there are such survivors still among us, people still so engaged with life today in New York that they appear at a book signing in Greenwich Village to learn more about the past, one in which they themselves remain living historical participants —who put on makeup, a tailored jacket, interesting jewelry, and find a seat in a crowded room to listen to someone talk of their family, and who ask questions because they remain curious about life.
Shapiro, an immediately inspiring and elegant Italian–Jewish woman born in 1927, spoke about her grandmother and great grandmother and quoted from the letters her grandmother had managed to send from Fossoli, the first of which was written May 27, 1944. Those two women, elderly themselves at the time, were murdered on a summer day in Poland really not so very long ago, having languished for weeks before in a limbo of unremitting anxiety, Gemma pleading in those letters to former neighbors of hers in Turin and a family lawyer for the simplest of sundries—“a package of clothes, sugar, cookies, and canned food,” she had written in letter number 2. “We have nothing, not even toiletries…I’m not well—I’m dictating—thanks—sorry. Writing paper and envelopes—soap, drinking glasses, cutlery…” This is the time of year when many of us are still recounting our summer and how we spent it, wondering if we had made good use of the time.
The room in which the presentation was held was so full that I stood at the threshold and, without being asked to do so, turned off the lights so that a slideshow of images could be better seen; Shapiro acknowledged my simplest of actions with a nod of thanks and that very gesture made me feel eerily connected to a family and a profound history. We in the audience then saw projected black-and-white photos of the two women in the early 1900s and beyond, holding the hands of children, wearing hats festooned with feathers, walking over a bridge in Padua with handbags dangling from their wrists not unlike my own Italian and Jewish grandmothers would do as they shopped, posed beneath a tree in Ancona ringed by little boys in sailor suits backdropped by verdant Italian hillsides—family photographs where the kind of hellish future that would befall them was something even Dante’s inferno couldn’t have featured.
I don’t think it is possible for language to be simpler or more powerful, the requests for items more basic, than that expressed in these eight letters written by Gemma (the originals of which Shapiro donated to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, an institution which, according to her, was grateful to receive them as there is a paucity of material in their collection about Italian Jewry). “We are weak, it’s so hot. I’m counting on you, on everyone, especially as regards Mamma,” reads a portion of letter number 7, dated June 14, 1944, and from which the book derives its title. “She is my greatest worry. If I were on my own, I would be stronger and freer. Send some raggedy old clothes for me and for Mamma, for later on, too.”
There would be no “later on” for them, as we learn.
And, yet, there is a later on for us. For here we were, learning about the lives of two women, not just their last days, but earlier, happier ones, too, as well as the lives of survivors—Shapiro and her parents and siblings who began their odyssey of escape to Morocco when Italian racial laws were enacted in 1938 against the Jews, and that of a woman in the audience, who had not escaped but was able to tell to a roomful of strangers, in a simple aside, a fact about her life. Later on, we in the room could meet that woman who had asked the question and because it was still early enough, she could leave and go on with her evening.